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Chaos Theory: The Secret World's scare factor


There's a subgenre of horror video games that sometimes falls within "survival horror," where the developers design an experience where you're limited in some fashion to make you feel more vulnerable. Alone in the Dark, Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness, Amnesia -- all of these give you characters that move slowly, fight poorly, get freaked out easily, or have to cower in the shadows because they can't fight at all.

This feeling of vulnerability amps up the fear because whatever is going bump in the night is much more powerful than we are. The game trains us to avoid confrontations as much as possible, which triggers a second scare technique: keeping the monsters more in your imagination than on the screen. There is nothing more terrifying than what our minds can conjure up, at least in video games, and a good dev knows this and uses it against us.

Yet for all of its horror trappings, The Secret World takes a polar opposite approach. We are the super-powered, heavily-armed, nimble-footed, nigh-immortal hunters. We come, we see, and we shoot to kill. On top of that, we're almost always surrounded by other players to give us psychological and physical support.

So that makes me think: Is The Secret World scary? If so, how does it accomplish this without an inherent feeling of vulnerability that's present in the other games I listed above?

Chaos Theory The Secret World scare factor
Chaos Theory The Secret World scare factor
Within the boundaries of subjectivity, I'm going to state that, yes, The Secret World has a definite scare factor. This will be different for everyone, of course, so I'm just going to talk about what frightens me about it from my perspective and then sit back to see if these sentiments are shared.

Back when the game first launched, perhaps the most terrifying moment that I experienced was the anticipation of the Black House. Friends who progressed faster than I did kept passing back these testimonies about how the Savage Coast's Black House absolutely frightened the bejeebers out of them. For days as I worked my way through the rest of Kingsmouth, I dreaded getting to the point where I'd have to go to that place. It got so silly, in fact, that I finally just forced myself to run straight there doing a little mental yell, blitzing around the place so that I could confront my fear and get it over with. There were a lot of neat tricks in that house to give me the heebie-jeebies, but in the end what I was conjuring up in my mind was far more effective than Funcom making a few walls bleed.

The unknown is by far the scariest aspect of the game, and that is unfortunately in finite supply. Once you've done a mission or seen an area, chances are it's not going to have the same impact on you the second time through. That doesn't mean there isn't a lingering creepiness or the occasional forgetfulness that makes a jump scare effective once more, just that knowing is always less frightening than not knowing.

Chaos Theory The Secret World scare factor
Chaos Theory The Secret World scare factor
While the devs have to work doubly hard to overcome our offensive capabilities and social support to freak us out, they've done a remarkable job utilizing a few tools to undercut our sense of security and capability.

The first is a sense of wrongness. This game world isn't flush with bright colors and happy-go-lucky citizens; from the first steps on Solomon Island to the last few in Transylvania, there's an oppressive atmosphere that tells you things are more broken than they should be. Kingsmouth is scary to me not because of its zombie population but because of the ever-present fog that obscures the sun and the distance, making me feel claustrophobic and isolated. It turns what should be a somewhat familiar-looking place -- an American town -- into an alternate universe nightmare. The people being burned alive on stakes in Egypt also unnerve me greatly, as do the "blood stacks" in Transylvania.

The second tool are TSW's menagerie of creatures. Some are just downright disturbing, from the abnormally jointed Wendigos to the floating spirits to the filth-infected people. These probably would have a stronger impact if we didn't see the same models reused a thousand times or viewed them from a first-person vs. a third-person perspective. Still, in the right place and at the right time, even a familiar creature model can be a "holy crap I just peed my pants a little" presence.

Thirdly, there are the pop-out-and-scare-you moments. These aren't incredibly common, but they do happen (amusement park, anyone?) and still jolt me even if I know they're coming. The sound design of the game helps with this, especially that "crash" noise that indicates something horrible is coming your way.

Fourth, the devs can isolate you with solo instances. We won't get into the "argh it's frustrating that I can't invite my friend into this solo instance" debate right now, but some of these spaces are definitely more frightening because you know it's just going to be you and you alone. Investigating ancient sewers, abandoned Orochi installations, and haunted mansions is so much worse when you've got nobody at your back.

Fifth, there's always the time-tested tradition of darkness. Take away your ability to see the full picture clearly and suddenly your imagination is filling in the gaps even though you'd rather it not.

Sixth, while they're not my favorite, sabotage missions are often quite effective in bringing back that feeling of vulnerability that I mentioned at the beginning of this column. When you can't risk being seen or getting into a direct fight because you'll instantly lose, it takes away your standard powers and transforms you into a frightened kid darting from tree to tree in the hopes that the boogeyman won't get you.

Chaos Theory The Secret World scare factor
Chaos Theory The Secret World scare factor
For me, the first time on any given rollercoaster is the scariest. I have a fear of heights, and coupled with the unknown factor (what is this ride like?), it puts dread and anxiety into my stomach. Yet I love that moment when the fear is transformed into relief and excitement because it's at that moment that I can rejoice over conquering that moment. Going back on that rollercoaster might still be a little unnerving and a little exciting, but the biggest part is that first time around.

It's like that with the scares in The Secret World. I'm not freaked out during every play session, but there are times when I stop to turn on all of the lights and check behind the couch. There are some images that haunt me long after I log out, such as going across a certain covered bridge while dead and seeing the hanging bodies everywhere. Or the blood tank in the Slaughterhouse where you can see a face and a hand pressing against a window. Or those dang talking cats during that Cat God mission. Or the parking garage in NYC. Or that girl in Virgula Divina... you know the one.

Getting through those moments is like that first hill on a rollercoaster. I'm gripping my mouse and going "Oh maaaannn" while hoping that I'll make it through. But afterward? I'm elated that I faced that frightening situation and made it out with my wits intact and my pants mostly dry.

The Secret World is not just a horror game, of course, and that's why I'm not expecting it to leap out and go "boo!" at me all the time. Still, horror is its foundation, and upon that Funcom's built an interesting house of creaks, groans, shotguns, and things we best not look too closely at lest they revisit us in our dreams.

Conspiracies, paranoia, secrets, and chaos -- the breakfast of champions! Feast on a bowlful with MJ and Justin every Monday as they infiltrate The Secret World to bring you the latest word on the streets of Gaia in Chaos Theory. Heard some juicy whispers or have a few leads you want followed? Send them to or and they'll jump on the case!

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